Last January, I decided to try a radical new approach to my health. Instead of resolutions, which had always left me feeling guilty and overwhelmed, I came up with a list of short-term monthly experiments that would help me tackle each one of my problem areas, one by one.
The goal was to explore my limits, in order to find a more sustainable middle ground going forward. Because without experiencing small changes with awareness — what works for you, what doesn’t — there’s no way to design your own Goldilocks life of wellness that feels just right.
The challenges that I laid out were meant to force me to recommit to all the self-care practices that fell by the wayside when I left the corporate world to become a professional chef and food writer, and tame some of my more unfortunate symptoms of autoimmune disease (ahem, adult acne).
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach.
But I also wanted to boil my wellness equation down to its most essential elements — to figure out what products and experiences were actually worth the time, money, and energy we spend on them.
Now that I’m on the other side, I can say that there were some high highs, low lows, and many lessons I’ll take with me into 2016 as a result of both.
Most importantly, though, after trying my hand at many practices and researching the hell out of them in the process, I’ve distilled which strategies improved my life and which, despite the best scientific and spiritual intentions, just didn’t.
Here are a few of the things l learned about my own mind, body, and spirit during the pursuit of that elusive “balance.” One of the big ones is: there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.
That said, if you ever feel like you’ve bitten off more kale salad than you can chew, consider tabling some of your loftier health goals in favor of these simpler, more effective habits:
1. Warm lemon water instead of cleanses and “detox” supplements.
The concept of “detoxing” and “cleansing” runs rampant around January 1. While I’m all for taking a break from the wine bottle, replacing it with other bottles of expensive pills or juice is beside the point.
Remember that it’s always best to eat your nutrients, and that any drink that contains too much sugar, even if it’s from a natural source, will defeat the purpose of giving your liver a vacation day.
If you want to get your liver to fall back in love with you, start the day with a glass of lemon water. The antiseptic nature can actually act as a solvent for toxins, and though it makes zero sense on paper, when added to water, what should be an acidic substance instead becomes alkaline.
Starting the day with an alkaline drink rather than something acidic, like coffee, helps your liver flush all the junk it accumulated overnight when it was doing double duty cleaning your blood.
2. Makeup Free Monday instead of DIY natural beauty products.
One of my early challenges was switching all my beauty products to naturals. Now that I’ve fully taken the plunge, I love opening my bathroom cabinet and knowing that the things I use every day are clean and safe.
It may have taken some up-front investment, but as a result, I use my beauty budget much more wisely by spending it on things I use start to finish. But the biggest lesson from switching my products was how unnecessary so many of them were to begin with.
Now when my face flares up, I try to just leave it alone, and it usually finds its way out of the craters without the help of a Clean and Clear cleansing cloth, or the natural equivalent.
One great way to give your skin some necessary breathing room is to go makeup free on Mondays.
3. Flossing instead of oil pulling.
Another wellness practice that’s commonly associated with detox is oil pulling. The general concept is that you take a scant tablespoon of oil first thing in the morning — before brushing your teeth or taking vitamins — and use it as mouthwash.
The oil mixes with your saliva and pulls out all the toxins in your teeth, gums, and tricky little corners of your mouth. The only catch? It has to be done for 20 minutes.
Some people love their pulling practice, but I found that there were better ways to spend my already crowded mornings honoring my health. Instead, I try to be better about flossing twice a day.
Sometimes we take for granted the simple habits that our parents attempted to instill in us at an early age, but flossing is quick and worth the effort, lest some of that mounting bacteria migrate to your bloodstream.
4. Farmers market produce instead of “healthy,” “natural,” or “organic” grocery items.
For most people, going to the supermarket can be a stressful experience. It’s hard enough to know what to buy to begin with without the added element of trying to find food that’s actually as healthy as you think it is.
To avoid sorting through the certified organic and non-GMO labels, and the empty promises of “all natural,” I try to stock up on produce once week at the farmers market.
Even if a stand isn’t certified organic, most small farmers who aren’t pushing out supermarket quantities tend to use more sustainable practices.
And unlike conventional vegetables, which travel an average of 1,500 miles to get to your kitchen table, by buying locally you’re shortening the time between harvest and consumption, which means more nutrient bang for your buck.
Here are some of my tips for shopping at the farmers market for less.
5. Reusable charcoal water bottle instead of raw organic coconut water.
Anything from the beverage aisle is fine in moderation. But you should consider these drinks a treat, like a glass of wine, and not something that your body actually needs.
Soda especially should be a special occasion indulgence, like a tequila shot. Despite its reputation as nature’s magic elixir, coconut water still contains a ton of sugar and has only slightly fewer calories per fluid ounce than Gatorade.
Instead of buying expensive “healthy” beverages, get a stainless-steel or BPA-free reusable bottle to take with you on the go. I even have one that fits a Japanese charcoal stick!
These porous sticks look like something you pulled from a campfire, but they are shockingly adept at absorbing impurities. The only catch is you need to let the charcoal do its thing for an hour or so to get the best results. (More clean water tips here.)
6. Kitchen timer instead of an adjustable standing desk.
We all know by now: sitting is the new smoking.
But looking for a rule of thumb for preventing the onset of sitting-related “diseases” doesn’t turn up any easily applicable consensus. Most extremists recommended I buy a treadmill desk, a tatami mat, and a squatty potty and basically sit never.
Unfortunately, most standing desks are expensive, and the DIY and cheap versions I found turned out to be prohibitively annoying to use.
So I found a happy medium by using The Pomodoro Technique — a productivity system invented by entrepreneur Francesco Cirillo that uses work intervals, interspersed with short breaks, to make larger tasks more manageable.
In an effort to not lock myself in that sexy seated C-shape, I try to get up every 45 minutes, even if just to walk to the fridge to sneak another spoonful of almond butter.
If the timer gets on your nerves, as it did mine, a passive way to do this is to commit to a hydration habit. Drinking a boatload of water throughout the day pretty much necessitates getting out of your chair once an hour to either a) refill your glass or b) go to the bathroom.
7. Everyday walks instead of fad fitness classes.
When I first started reading about the issue of sitting, I assumed that a moderate exercise habit would counteract some of this sloth-like behavior.
But a recent study conducted by Cornell University suggested that the hours spent on our butts are really the prime indicators of mortality, regardless of how many days a week you go to cardio kickboxing before an eight-hour shift at the computer.
Walking may seem like a poor man’s excuse for exercise (maybe because it’s free!), but it actually is one of the most “nutritious” movement patterns out there — especially if done out in nature on an un-groomed surface.
Getting in the habit of taking the road less traveled, or taking the road by foot in the first place, is a much more sustainable (not to mention cheaper) long-term habit than spending $40 on a boutique, trendy class a few times a week.
8. Thermometer plus Kindara charting app instead of an IUD.
The struggle to find effective birth control alternatives to pumping hormones through your bloodstream is real. Many women are electing to swap the Pill for a copper IUD. But there’s an even more natural option: charting.
Even though I went kicking and screaming, going off the Pill did more for my body literacy than any of the other experiments for my wellness project ever could have.
All the control I thought I was losing over my cycle — the ability that artificial hormones gave me to plan ahead, skip periods, and know that I wouldn’t get pregnant — I gained back in spades as I learned to chart with the Fertility Awareness Method.
9. Lacto-fermented foods instead of probiotic pills.
In the last several years, the probiotics market has skyrocketed into a big business. These pills promise to deliver billions of organisms to the bed of your gut garden, along with any number of health benefits from weight loss to reduced risk of heart disease.
Unfortunately, the efficacy is difficult to test. Mainly because each of us has a different microbiota. One combination could work in one individual but not another.
For this reason, many gut experts recommend eating lacto-fermented foods, as they contain the most diversity and potency.
10. A good book, instead of orange-tinted glasses.
More so than any post-Industrial era convenience, the invention of round-the-clock light sources has had the biggest impact on our circadian rhythms. The blue light emitted by the sun is now also mimicked by our television, computer, tablet, and phone.
There are a few apps these days that can help block blue light on your devices. I downloaded F.lux on my computer to sync the screen color with the time of day, and for other pre-bed electronic activities, I ordered a pair of orange glasses.
I discovered though my experiments though that falling sleep was the biggest problem when my mind was running in circles. I could be dead tired and still my worries might wind me up for hours of tossing and turning.
Because of this, I found that reading of any sort, even if done on a device, helped me get in a better head space for sleep. Try to stick to a paperback or Kindle if you want to avoid the blue light issue, though.
If you want more realistic ways to stay healthy, check out my course: How to Make Healthy & Delicious Meals on a Budget & in a Time-Crunch.
Phoebe Lapine is a food and health writer, gluten-free chef, wellness personality, culinary instructor, and speaker based in New York. She has a B.A. from Brown University, but but was born and raised in New York City. On her award-winning blog, Feed Me Phoebe, she shares recipes for healthy comfort food and insights about balanced lifestyle choices beyond what’s on your plate. Lapine's forthcoming memoir, The Wellness Project, chronicles her journey with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and how she finally found the middle ground between health and hedonism by making one lifestyle change, one month at a time. Connect with her on Instagram and Facebook for more creative clean recipes and inspiration.